Adventures with Larry & Caleb: What are the Pros and Cons of Vocational Ministry?

Upstream co-founders, Larry McCrary and Caleb Crider, are living in very different places: for Larry, Madrid, Spain; for Caleb, Richmond, Virginia. Along with their families they’re not just teaching Tradecraft missionary skills, they’re also applying them. So we wanted to tap into their unique experiences and at the same time parallel their local and global perspectives. So “Adventures with Larry and Caleb” will be an ongoing series throughout the year where we ask them one mission-related question at a time. Here’s the question for this week:

What are the pros and cons of vocational ministry?

Larry McCrary

The North American church naturally celebrates the word ‘missionary’ and anyone sent out to be one. In some cases, being a missionary raises your status level in the Evangelical church world. It’s subtly reflected when we say that ordinary people can also live overseas with missional importance. Why are they ordinary? Because we see them as secondary to a vocational missionary. More than ever before, this is simply not true.

What in the world are you doing in my country?

I was once asked this many years ago while serving overseas. It’s a question that’s often posed to overseas workers who call themselves missionaries. And it can create an intense crisis. In many parts of the world, governments and people are not very open to having Christian missionaries. In other places you may enter as a vocational missionary, but it’s a term that most people will misunderstand. They may feel that missionaries are those who are sent to poor regions in the world to provide relief. Others may be more cynical and feel that missionaries are religious radicals who sabotage cultures.

I see three challenges as a vocational missionary:

  • Their Identity may create tension. This begins in the hearts of the missionaries themselves. On both formal and informal bases they must articulate who they are and what they’re doing. This may form an issue of conscience, especially if they can’t be fully honest (such as pointing to a platform or project that they actually don’t maintain). In addition, nationals can see when someone is posing, which leads to suspicion more than curiosity. Some missionaries in such circumstances have even been accused of being spies.
  • Their Credibility may not be high. In post- or non-Christian contexts many people will not welcome them as a missionary (i.e. religious fanatic or cultural saboteur) nor as a poser (i.e. spy). Credibility is the gateway to relationship, and relationship is the gateway to sharing the gospel. Without it they may not get to the first conversation, and certainly not beyond it. And to the extent that the missionary lacks credibility among the people, Jesus lacks credibility.
  • Their Accessibility to the people they want to reach may be limited. Though they have more time for language acquisition and relationship-building, they can’t consistently rub shoulders with people who are busy at work. For example, I have a heart to see urban professionals follow Jesus, but vocational missionaries can’t really access the core of that population segment. However, the good news is that over 6,000,000 North Americans live abroad and have natural access to the people they work with. The Christians among them are an army of potential missionaries.

Caleb Crider

Typically, a missionary is someone who is paid (through fundraising or full-time pay) to move to a different land and make disciples of the people there. Folks who choose this model of missionary service tend to pursue theological education in preparation, and often subject themselves to emotional, spiritual, and strategic evaluation in an attempt to establish their preparedness for life on the field. This “mission as career” approach to mission frees the sent-one from having to find and maintain regular work, allowing him instead to focus his time and efforts upon the work of ministry. At first glance, this might seem like the best way – even the only way – to be a missionary.

Many Christ-followers are now beginning to explore their part in God’s mission. These are bank tellers, teachers, students, web developers, and claims adjusters who feel as though the decision to become a missionary requires them to leave their jobs, raise funds, and go. This false understanding couldn’t be further from the truth. The “career missionary” model simply isn’t the only (or the best) way to go and make disciples among the peoples of the earth.

Firstly, it is not sustainable. The thousands of missionaries currently serving around the world require millions of dollars in financial support each year. Whether it’s due to limited resources or apathy on the part of sending churches, we simply don’t have the money to send all of the people that need to go.

Secondly is the question of access. When a worker quits his or her job to become a “missionary,” they also leave behind the “backstage pass” that would allow them to enter a new culture. “Career missionary” isn’t something the people and governments of other countries welcome; doctors, entrepreneurs, carpenters, and social workers, on the other hand, are welcomed in many parts of the world. For someone with a “regular job” to move to a new place on God’s mission may be more complicated, but it puts the believer into a position to build strong relationships and to model for local people what their lives would look like in Christ.

Now, this isn’t an argument against fully-funded church planters living abroad. We need “career missionaries”! But we cannot allow these missionaries to be the only missionaries. In 1 Corinthians 9:3-18 we read Paul’s teaching on the subject. As a bi-vocational missionary, Paul makes the argument that churches should provide financially for some of those that they send. But throughout Acts, we see Paul using his trade to earn a living while making disciples in the marketplace. Paul is a good example for those who are contemplating missionary service today: your willingness to go comes first; your mode of service is a secondary question that doesn’t necessarily involve leaving the workforce.

In the end, churches desperately need to separate the role of missionary from the career of “missionary.” Only when we understand the sent-ness of all of God’s people and the need for creative approaches to sending and maintaining people on mission will we truly be able to be obedient to Christ’s command to go.